Atlantic Menhaden Fishery Faces Crucial Decision

The future of menhaden populations depends on a critical vote by the Atlantic States Marine Commission

November 10, 2017


pogey in net
Menhaden provide a key source of nutrition to marine wildlife on the Atlantic coast. Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

On Monday, November 13, 2017, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will meet for two days in Baltimore and decide whether or not to adopt an ecosystems approach to conserving menhaden beginning next year, or stick with the status quo while they study the issue for a few more years.

An unprecedented number of citizens of the East Coast — More than 150,000 — and more than 80 fishing and environmental organizations told the ASMFC that the status quo is not an option. An astounding 99.3 percent of those who commented on Draft Amendment 3 to the Interstate Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden urged the commission to amend its fishing rules to leave 75 percent of the un-fished population of menhaden in the water as forage for dependent predators — larger fish, birds and marine mammals — up and down the Atlantic Coast.

Here’s what’s at stake next week:

  • Menhaden are critical to a healthy and balanced coastal ecosystem.
    Reduced menhaden populations impact the abundance and diversity of predator populations. Ecological reference points (ERPs) are needed to maintain a larger population, which means not only more food in the water for predators but also more robust East Coast fisheries, sport and commercial.

  • The striped bass is just one of the many predators whose numbers are directly linked to the abundance of menhaden.
    A brand new study out of the University of Maryland validates what anglers know full well — the health of the striper population is directly linked to the abundance of menhaden. Fewer menhaden in the water mean fewer striped bass. And it’s not just a fish-eat-fish world. The diets of many seabirds on the Atlantic coast are predominantly menhaden, according to the Audubon Society. For the osprey, for example, menhaden make up 75 to 100 percent of their diet, depending on the time of year.

“The menhaden industry does not own the resource. It belongs to all of us.”

  • The public is supporting ERP Option E — “The 75 percent Solution” — because it’s the best available science and it’s ready to be implemented in 2018.
    The 2015 Wild Oceans report, Resource Sharing: The Berkeley Criterion, revealed a remarkable consensus among fisheries scientists from around the world that setting a target population of 75 percent of the virgin biomass is a good “rule of thumb” for key forage species because it reduces the impact on predators by about half (compared to conventional targets) while still allowing reasonable yields to the fisheries. (The current menhaden population, according to an updated assessment this year, is at 47 percent of the unfished level.) A letter to ASMFC signed by 117 scientists endorsed Option E.

  • Option E allows for work to continue on the development of menhaden-specific ecosystem models, but waiting years until they are usable — the industry’s preferred option — is unnecessary and extremely risky.
    Even if these new, complex and untested models turn out to produce usable guidance for meeting the ASMFC’s ecosystem objectives, they likely could not be implemented before the 2022 fishing season. Meanwhile, the prospect of the fishery being managed another five years or more using the current, single-species reference points, which could allow for a more than 50 percent increase over current catch levels, could mean the loss of the growth in the menhaden stock and in its coastal range that we’ve seen in recent years.

  • The menhaden industry does not own the resource. It belongs to all of us.
    We enjoy the fisheries that menhaden support, directly and indirectly, value the wildlife it sustains, and benefit socially and economically from a healthy and diverse ocean environment. The public pays the costs of management — from stock assessments and all the science that goes into them to fisheries regulation, monitoring and enforcement. The ASMFC has a responsibility to manage and conserve menhaden for the greatest benefit to the nation as a whole.
menhaden cartoon comic
Starving in Fat City Courtesy Wild Oceans

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that, given the overwhelming public support for new ecological standards for menhaden now, as exhibited at hearings in every state on the East Coast and in voluminous written comments, the ASMFC has an obligation to abide by the wishes and desires of the public when it supports a legitimate management approach that is viable for menhaden, based on sound science with the support of fishery ecologists and biologists, and ready for use now.

As the ASMFC Menhaden Management Board convenes Monday to decide the future of menhaden and so much more, the world will be watching. Let’s hope they do the right thing.

About the Author

ken hinman
Ken Hinman Wild Oceans

Ken Hinman is president of Wild Oceans, an independent non-profit founded by fishermen in 1973, and is in his 40th year working professionally to conserve marine fish. A co-author of the Ecosystem Principles Advisory Panel’s 1999 Report to Congress, Ecosystem-Based Fishery Management, he has served on the Atlantic Menhaden Advisory Panel since 2004.


Sport Fishing welcomes opportunities to share a variety of perspectives from prominent or influential participants in issues related to recreational fishing and fisheries.

time to manage menhaden ecologically

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